Any honest study of black people’s history quickly and emphatically reveals an enduring truth; sistas have always been in the front line, at the heart of our liberation struggles. From chattel slavery to apartheid and everywhere in-between, sistas have had brothas’ backs. Only those with the severest cases of denial, or blinkered by ideology, misogynoir, or both, could hesitate in accepting this fact.
So what? Haven’t we brothas had our sistas’ backs too?
Well, of course, we have — but sadly and scandalously, far from always, and nowhere near as consistently as they’ve had ours. It’s no coincidence that a sista created the #MeToo movement. And as painful as what I’m about to say is, we need to acknowledge it: way too often, we brothas are the problem or a significant part of it.
Before any of you are tempted to go there, I mean all of us — not only, or mainly cishet (cisgender, heterosexual) brothas, but also gay, bi, gender non-conforming, non-binary, and all other identities and flavours that form our dark man rainbow. Cishet brothas undoubtedly present the biggest and most intractable issues for our sistas, whether the latter are cishet or not, but let me repeat it for the naughty boyz in the back: this is something we all need to work on.
OK, but how do we go about this? How do we become or build on being #MaleAllies?
Let me count the ways. First, we need to question and change our own behaviour towards sistas, and what we say to and about sistas. This has to be the starting point, because unless and until we do this, everything else we do to stand with them will be hollow centred. Second, we have to call out our loved ones and friends when they disrespect them. If #MeToo is to have the best chance of achieving its objectives of holding men accountable, men must hold ourselves and each other accountable. For black men, there’s an additional responsibility — because white women are marginalising sistas.
We should not allow white women to marginalise our sistas
This is a big and for many, controversial claim, so let me offer a recent personal experience as evidence. The following paragraph is the text of an email I sent to one Jo Faragher, content editor at dileaders.com, a diversity and inclusion webzine, in response to an October 2019 article, which wrongly claimed the #MeToo movement is two years old:
I was interested to note your claim that [#MeToo] is two years old. Have you come across the work and campaigning of Tarana Burke? Ms Burke coined the phrase and started the movement in 2006. The importance of this history isn’t merely about acknowledging her work — though that would be more than enough in itself — but also about addressing the erasure of what black women do and say from the public discourse.
I concluded my message with this link to this Guardian profile of Tarana Burke. I hoped the writer would reply with an apology to her and an assurance that she would correct her article. Ms Faragher did neither; she didn’t even acknowledge my message, never mind reply. This failure is shocking, not least because it is utterly predictable.
The white ex-Hollywood-starlet-who-never-became-a-star apparently cottoned on to #MeToo two years ago, but Tarana Burke’s tireless campaign started the hashtag in 2006. In one casual failure, this self-styled diversity and inclusion expert dismissed, or perhaps even dissed, Tarana’s thirteen years of achievements and hard, sensitive and vital work.
If we are serious about being #MaleAllies, we must not and cannot allow this to keep happening. We owe sistas unwavering and unqualified support — not only because they have been there for us throughout history, but also because it’s the right thing to do. Some of you may be tempted to believe I’m exaggerating when I say this; those of you who entertain any such thoughts are invited to examine the evidence. Do a quick online search for “black women supporting black men,” then do one for “black men supporting black women” and see for yourself which search term gives more results and the respective qualities of those that you get.
As Tamela J Gordon puts it in her powerful critique of intersectional feminism:
“Sadly, the women who are in need of protest, protection, and sisterhood most, black women, are the ones who get it least. Even when a black woman creates a term and a concept to describe just how dangerous it is to be a black woman, white women take it, run with it, build over the fundamentals, and save no room for black women. Fucking ironic.”
Leaving that irony aside, what can and should we aspiring #MaleAllies brothas do?
Gay brothas should have a head start because the prevailing tone of cishet brothas support for sistas is highly conditional. The starting point for most of it is the assumption that sistas are, or should be, cishet and unquestioningly supportive of brothas. The ironies here are many and varied; we don’t reciprocate — just contrast the response to the deaths of black men and boys at the hands of the state on both sides of the Atlantic with the overwhelmingly muted reactions to cishet women’s deaths and the deafening silence to those suffered by black trans women for evidence of our failings.
If I haven’t been controversial enough thus far, hold onto your hats.
There is a long, toxic tradition of gay men cruelly mocking cishet women and misogynoir is particularly strong among black gay men
I’m not talking about the drag scene here — though it’s certainly arguable that this is a part of it — but the misappropriation and/or caricaturing of black women’s language, stylings, behaviours and other cultural signifiers. If all things were equal, this might be OK, even a cause for celebration.
But of course, we know that things are far from equal — and this tradition may well have given tacit permission to white women and others to join in the widespread mockery of black women that is still a high profile and poorly contested part of mainstream (that is, white-dominated) ‘western’ culture. I believe that gay #MaleAllies have a lot of work to do here — there’s little or no good reason why gay brothas who don’t know or don’t care about this issue should give much attention to what cishet brothas have to say on this.
All black #MaleAllies should do better by our sistas
We need to be there for them as they’ve always been for us. African-Americans have an old saying: we love America, but it doesn’t love us (back). Sistas could legitimately and easily say they love us, but we fail to love them back. So the litmus test of whether and how well we challenge misogynoir must be working to remove virtually all doubt that we are genuinely #OurSistasKeepers.
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